Montenegro president accuses Serbia of sparking religious protests
Montenegro’s president, Milo Djukanovic, says Serbia and Russia are using the Serbian Orthodox Church to undermine the government as the former Yugoslav republic applies for European Union membership.
The freedom of religion law was first proposed in 2015 but was rapidly withdrawn.
In May 2019, the government proposed an updated bill which passed in December.
Djukanovic said protests against a religious law led by the Serbian Orthodox church were intended “to question Montenegro’s independence”.
Montenegro was part of the same state as Serbia for nearly 90 years until independence in 2006.
The most controversial measure of the law is that any property held by a religious community will be nationalised if there is no record of ownership before 1918, the year when Montenegro joined what became the Kingdom of Yugoslavia after the fall of the Hapsburg empire.
Protesters claim the authorities could confiscate Serbian Orthodox churches or cemeteries while the government dismisses this interpretation of the legislation.
An estimated 70 per cent of the Montenegrin population of 620,000 are Orthodox Christian, most of them following the Serbian Orthodox Church while a minority follows the non-recognised Montenegrin Orthodox Church.
Metropolitan Ilarion, a Russian Orthodox Church priest, supported the Serbian Orthodox Church protests in Montenegro. Metropolitan Onufriy, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is loyal to the Moscow patriarchate, also rallied in the capital, Podgorica.
“If you are asking whether this is a continuity of the destruction of Montenegro and obstruction of its intention to continue its path to … European and Euro-Atlantic integrations, there’s no doubt in that,” Djukanovic said.
“Moscow was unequivocal in stating its interests in the ongoing problem in Montenegro.”
The Podgorica government says it wants to register land ownership and the legislation invites the church authorities to register their properties.
The president said the protests were symptomatic of the revival of the concept of a Greater Serbia that fuelled the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
“We have no doubt that … all the mechanisms of the implementation of the Greater Serbian state project … have been put into motion, and that Montenegro is also a target,” he said.
Serb Prime Minister Ana Brnabic dismissed the allegations.
“I am surprised by the rhetoric of President Djukanovic … Serbia has abandoned the 1990s a long time ago and turned to the future,” Brnabic added.
Picturesque Montenegro is looking west. Picture credit: AllFreePictures